A group of 35 young adults. Three are given tickets to sit at a table where there are cans of lemonade and chocolate muffins. Five are given tickets to a table where there is orange squash and digestive biscuits.
The other 29 get no tickets and are left at tables with dry crackers and a jug of water.
A discussion opens up. Some of those on dry crackers want to know why some are more privileged than others? Why did those people get picked? The random nature of it annoys them.
One of the young people at the table with juice and digestive says he’s happy enough with what he’s got although he’d quite like those chocolate muffins. Then the moment of decision – will the three with the lemonade and muffins give them up so that everyone can get juice and digestive biscuits? Two different groups over two days. The first group say yes and give up the treats. Today the group vote two against one and keep the goodies, leaving most of the others with dry crackers.
Was I simply trying to cause a riot? No, I was actually working with groups of 17 and 18-year-olds on retreats about solidarity and Catholic social teaching. Interestingly when I did an exercise with the group to tease out their opinions it became clear that the majority of students believed that the Church has little worthwhile to say about issues like justice, workers’ rights, access to clean water, education , a liveable home and the dignity of each human being.
Somehow Catholic social teaching appears to be one of our best kept secrets.
Catholic social teaching is rooted in the belief that we are each created in the image and likeness of God, and that through baptism we become part of the body of Christ. That means that we have a responsibility to each other. That is what solidarity is about. Solidarity is demanding.
The reality is that the resources of the Earth are limited. This is where the idea of the muffins, digestives and crackers came from. There aren’t enough resources to give everybody muffins and lemonade, but if that small and privileged group are willing to let go of some of their privilege there may be enough to give everyone juice and biscuits.
Solidarity invites us to empathy, to understand the experience of others as deeply as we can and to stand with them, supporting them.
The students were asked to work in small groups to explore who they feel called to stand with. It was interesting to see what came up. There was a lot of emphasis on supporting charities but somehow solidarity demands that and more. It is that challenge to live more simply so that others can simply live. It is about living a responsible relationship with the environment so that the world we pass on to future generations can sustain their lives. That’s where it gets uncomfortable. There is an onus on us to change our habits and reflect on our choices.
Lent, a time of conversion and transformation is a good time to open up these conversations at home. Trócaire puts the challenge of solidarity clearly before us. We are invited to simplify our lives, maybe giving up alcohol, sweets or the marmalade on our toast not just for the benefit to our health but so that the money we save can make a real difference to the lives of people living in poverty. But this is not just something for Lent. This is what we are called to day in, day out. This is what it means to be Christian, to be the body of Christ. Solidarity may take shape through reducing waste, going out of our way to welcome the stranger, seeing beyond negative labels to the humanity of the person or simply sharing your chocolate muffin with the person who only has dry crackers.